I love history, but I LOVE Black history. I am not sure when I fell in love with Black history, but I know it was not based on my K-12 educational experiences.
As an elementary student, I distinctly remember sitting through history lessons thinking, “Some of this history stuff does not make sense.” My schooling rarely taught about Black people and events. Still, when my teachers did, I learned that slavery was a paternalistic system, and that Black people were content as slaves — or at least accepted their oppressed conditions because slaves were well taken care of by their masters. I learned that the Civil War was about states’ rights — not slavery — and I was taught to have compassion for white Southerners and their way of life. I learned Rosa Parks was just tired, Black folks had to achieve equity only through nonviolence and racism was over after the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
I give my K-12 educational experiences credit as these history narratives — which were disconnected from me, my conversations with Black folks about their life and my experiences living in the Deep South — influenced me to be curious about the histories of people who looked like me.
Growing up, I attended schools in the 1980s and ’90s in Louisiana. I was the kid who liked to learn history on my own, so I read about historical figures from the encyclopedia book sets from our living room, scouring our Ebony magazine collections for historical articles written by Lerone Bennett and going to the local library to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Booker T. Washington.
My parents were not historians, not Afrocentric, not overly pro-Black, were not liberals, nor were they overly political, but they were supportive in my endeavors. As children of the 1950s and ’60s from rural East Texas and central Louisiana, they experienced systemic and individual racism and discrimination. Because of their experiences, they instilled in me the importance of loving myself as a Black person, as well as pride for Black people and being an educated person. To them, my knowledge of history — especially Black history — was important because they knew that the K-12 educational system would fail to teach me, and that U.S. society has never loved Black folks. They wanted me to know history not to hinder or gripe about the past, but to give me the strength to be a liberated Black person who can stand on my own, be able to recognize racial injustice and be confident in knowing that Black folks are more than what they tell us we are in those history books.
By the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to be a history educator. During my junior year, I took an honors U.S. history course taught by Mrs. Linda Pendergrass. Mrs. Pendergrass quickly became my favorite teacher. For the first time, I felt that a teacher taught history through multiple perspectives. Still, there were significant gaps in her methods, but at the time, I was impressed with her sincerity. A teacher finally cared about my historical perspective, given the evidence provided. Although I don’t think my classmates were amused, she even entertained me when I questioned history. I believe Mrs. Pendergrass sensed that I was a serious history student and recommended that I read the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” by James Loewen. This book, along with “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” by Carter G. Woodson, was the genesis of my understanding how our educational system treats history — especially Black history.
Woodson’s “Mis-Education of the Negro” was published in 1933 as a collection of essays critiquing how the education system failed to educate Black people. The essays include a broad range of topics focusing on Black colleges, vocational education, Black churches, electoral politics and economic policies. One critical argument made in the book was the lackluster way Negro history was presented (or not presented) in schools. History education primarily focused on European history and excluded or minimized Black history. When Black history was presented, rarely were African and African American people’s skills, abilities or contributions featured. Instead, narratives stressed their subordinate roles in society and depicted them as subhuman and heathens. These textbooks often emphasized Black people’s good fortune at having been exposed, through slavery, to the white man’s civilization.
Miseducation, defined, is the communication of knowledge that harms students and society’s perception of Black people and Blackness. It’s a system of control to oppress students’ critical thinking about the world around them. Miseducation seeks to transmit the racial status quo and not transform knowledge that enhances equitable and democratic learning. This knowledge is shared through an improper education — both formal and informal. And whether the knowledge is innocuous or not, it transmits white superiority and Black inferiority messages.
Miseducation has continued to define our K-12 history education policy. While we may not see outwardly racist words describing Black people, we continue to see narratives that dehumanize the historical experiences of Black people.
Take, for instance, how Black histories are covered in a typical K-12 history classroom.
First, schoolchildren learn about Black history through European contact or colonization, erasing thousands of years of Black history and leaving the impression that Black history is not important unless it is connected to Europeans.
Second, Black history is largely defined through three eras: the enslavement period, Civil War/Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. This leaves major gaps and disjointed learning and implies that Black history is simply oppression, suffering, trauma and liberation.
Third, Black history is taught mainly through a few messiahs who serve as charismatic and respectable saviors of the Black race who hold few personal struggles or shortcomings. These people are usually taught to be the quintessential Black person who Black people should aspire to be.
Fourth, Black history centers on Black historical firsts — Black people who are considered the first to do something in history. These historical firsts are typically those who have broken down barriers into white society, given the impression that white society is the standard for historical importance.
Fifth, Black history is primarily centered on Black males who are Christian, middle class, able-bodied and heterosexual. We leave out a collection of Black identities that will help us understand Black history fully.
Lastly, throughout history, miseducation centers Black people as passive noncontributors of their freedom and U.S. democracy. Miseducation notes that white people are Black people’s saviors with moral compasses who eventually fought against what scholars Anthony Brown and Keffrelyn Brown have noted as a “few bad men doing bad things,” instead of systemic policies aiding society’s quest to keep Black people as second-class citizens.
Through miseducation, Black people are forever subhuman and anti-Blackness is warranted. It humanizes oppressors and dehumanizes those who have been oppressed. It manufactures Black history narratives that are palatable and do not offend white people’s historical sensibilities and worldviews. Therefore, Black histories are selected as official histories not because of their historical influence or importance, but because their narrative is aligned to appease Eurocentric worldviews and epistemological concerns. Black histories that are deemed or can be manufactured into safe, sanitized and pleasant narratives are favored over Black histories that challenge whiteness, racism and anti-Blackness. Miseducation is also a paternalistic history and implies that Black people are problems to be solved. Its project is to align Black people’s humanity through Black history’s proximity to Eurocentric histories.
Today, miseducation is the driving force of our new, manufactured crisis concerning patriotic education and critical race theory. The United States political culture has a history of attacking school-based histories that do not align with the authoritarian patriotism history arc that ensures the United States is seen as exceptional — and any evidence of inequitable transgressions are seen as aberrations but have been largely solved at the institution level because of the democratic and moral ethos of the United States. It is believed that students and society should have an unquestioned loyalty to these histories; if not, you are unpatriotic and a danger to U.S. ideas and principles. It seems like every two decades or so, the old, racialized terminology that certain types of education are destroying the values of this country comes forth.
Similar to the banning of Harold Rugg’s textbook in the 1930s and ’40s, the K-12 Black history and studies movement in the 1960s, and the wars against multicultural and Afrocentric education in the 1980s and 1990s, critical race theory is the new buzzword — just like “multiculturalism” was three decades ago. The problem is not critical race theory; the fight is over identity and power.
James Baldwin’s 1964 book “A Talk to Teachers” provides a good understanding of miseducation’s influence over identity and power. “If … one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history,” Baldwin writes. “And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”
As Baldwin explains, miseducation creates a cognitive dissonance about identity and reality. History helps shape identity that informs how we understand our, as well as others’, humanity. To effectively teach, white people, teachers and those who have accepted miseducation will have to rethink and question their entire existence. Miseducation teaches us that white people are the most historically influential people in the world — that whiteness is the apex of humanity. Therefore, your value, no matter your racialized category, is tied to whiteness.
Dissonance occurs when teachers and others accept that the history curriculum is filled with many untruths. When dealing with a multicultural and multiethnic society, unraveling miseducation becomes an identity project where white people and others realize that white people and a proximity to whiteness should not drive history. When combined with world histories, white people are not that historically important. To be clear, that statement does not infer that there are not white people who have made a tremendous historical impact. I am saying that throughout the totality of histories that we should learn, white people’s ideas are not that intellectually salient. White people’s epistemologies are not that structurally important. White people’s moral values systems are not the standard in society. In other words, miseducation has devised a racist belief system that humanity — and therefore history — is supposed to be in the lens of whiteness.
Some may say that we have made great strides in our history curriculum, and I would agree somewhat. We are no longer asking whether Black people have a history worth studying, but we are struggling with what type of Black history we should teach in K-12 schools. Our gains have largely been quantitative in nature, based on the number of times Black people are mentioned in the curriculum. While gains in mentions of Black people in the curriculum are a goal, we should also focus on qualitative approaches to Black history, where we understand Black history from Black perspectives.
Our biggest mistake in K-12 history is that we believe in historical uniformity — that there is one collective historical narrative with no need for different historical experiences, interpretations and perspectives. We should focus more on historical contentiousness in the history curriculum because that approach is more accurate when dealing with multiple histories. By contentious, I mean that historical experiences of different racialized groups — even when historical encounters happen simultaneously — will be different, even total opposites.
Historical contentiousness differs from uniformity because contentiousness helps educators understand the importance of teaching through Black history instead of teaching about Black history. Teaching through Black history indicates that Black histories are narratives that center the Black experience. It is a unique history that diverges from white interests. Black histories are their own historical entity where narratives are focused on Black historical perspectives and ideas.
Historical contentiousness reminds educators that Black history has its own timelines, perspectives, voices and people — allowing educators to understand that what is historically important to white people may not be historically important to Black people. Black histories are contentious histories because often, those narratives do not align with how the official historical narratives are constructed. Even though many white and Black Americans may have spoken a common language, lived in close proximity and lived in similar historical eras, they experience and interpret histories differently because of their lived realities. Therefore histories are different.
When we teach through Black people instead of about Black people, the historical narratives look different. Sometimes, the histories do not add up because we see histories from different viewpoints. Famed historian Manning Marable provides a useful example comparing how white and Black Southerners remembered slavery in his book “Living Black History.” White Southerners “emphasized the close personal relationships between the slaves and owners while downplaying the violence and exploitations on which slavery rested,” Marable writes. “They glorified the docile ‘darkies’ who had served so faithfully, the loyal mammies who had nursed both white and Black children, and the trusted servants who protected the plantation against the hated Yankees.”
The historical voices of formerly enslaved African Americans and their children had a different memory; they “described the endless indignities of chattel bondage; its numerous perils to family life; the trauma that accompanied beatings, mutilations, and murders; the prohibitions against education and religious worship; the denial of the basic civil rights they would claim as their own during Reconstruction,” Marable writes.
For a long time, we taught about Black people through slavery, meaning that the enslavers’ historical point of view was the history. Rarely was violence against the enslaved taught within school spaces because teaching violence was to indirectly teach resistance. That was the narrative that I was taught. When teaching through Black history, we get a totally different version of history — a more accurate experience from Black people.
In an effort to provide a more humane Black history, I have proposed the Black historical consciousness framework for schools and society. Black historical consciousness is an effort to understand, develop and teach Black histories that recognize Black people’s humanity and emphasizes pedagogical practices that seek to reimagine the legitimacy, selection and interpretation of historical sources. To describe Black historical consciousness is to alter our ideology about history and transform the way we think about Black history. Black historical consciousness seeks to counter miseducation through principles that dismantle the white epistemic historical logic that has long dominated much of K-12 history. For detailed information on the Black historical consciousness framework, I encourage readers to read my Social Education article, “Black History is Not American History.”
Miseducation is a form of violence, both physical and intellectual. It’s a vicious cycle that is not simply about history curriculum; it is about citizenship and how society treats its Black citizens. Students who are miseducated by educational systems become citizens who then miseducate society. In effect, miseducation is one of the many reasons racism continues in our society. What these new censorship laws are doing in our society is proving what Black folks and other people of color have been saying for centuries: You do not care about us, our voices, our perspectives, our joy, our culture and how Black people have fought against oppression. In essence, you do not care about Black people’s humanity.
Teaching through Black people or their historical consciousness is not anti-American or unpatriotic. In many ways, Black history is a story of holding the United States accountable for its own mission. If you are against that, you are not for democracy or any of the ideas that the country says it stands for.
Arguments over what teaching about race does to schoolchildren are not about Black children learning history. The subject is always white children and the fear of what they can do to make this world more equitable if they simply learn their history. Teaching through Black history does not make Black children — or any other child — hate white people. Teaching about race and racism should not make white students feel guilt for being white. It should allow white children to appreciate others more and to help them understand themselves better in the process. It shows Black children and others that their historical narratives matter.
It has been said that the summer of 2020 — with the killing of George Floyd — was a racial reckoning. We have had these moments before, but I say that we are not close to a racial reckoning — we can’t even get our history in schools right. This era should be a space for reflection. I would echo James Baldwin and ask, “Why are you mad?” Why do you feel guilty learning about your history? Maybe your anger and guilt stems from you understanding that the U.S. has done some despicable things to Black folks and others, and we recognize that as a country, you have not done enough to make our society more equitable. Maybe it is because you understand that Black histories and other racialized histories are just as valuable as the histories we teach now, and you are upset that the histories you learned have been a lie. Maybe it is because with Black history knowledge, you cannot dehumanize Black folks in your minds because you realize how creative, resourceful and powerful they are. I do not know the answers, but I do know that Black history does not assign blame and should not make you feel guilty. That is a “you” problem, an identity issue, and the projection of something deeper.
LaGarrett King is an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri.
Opinion: Why our schools aren\’t doing justice to complexities of Black history /p>